I began by visiting Masters of the Everyday, which looked at Dutch art of the seventeenth century, mainly focused on everyday life: families, children, music, food. One of the highlights was Vermeer’s ‘A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman’, but my personal favourites were the Rembrandts: seemingly simple but demonstrating incredible skill – I almost felt as if the figures in the paintings were going to step out of the frames and speak to me.
The second exhibition, High Spirits, focused on the work of Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827), the English caricaturist, whose satirical work was popular in his time and remains significant today. His cartoons offer political commentary and observations on contemporary society. I liked this exhibition too: the crisp colours and sharp lines belied the age of the works, and their content was a fascinating and often amusing look into the life of the era.
Both exhibitions close on 14 February, so there’s still time to see them if you want to.
The relatively small exhibition explored the role of music in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. In the art of the time, music often represented harmony, temperance and moderation, as well as transience – still lives showed how death meant the stilling of music. Gatherings of families and friends often revolved around music – but so did entertainment at establishments such as brothels. Some of the pictures on display deliver ambiguous meanings, for instance by using close-ups of musicians to explore emotions. In a restricted society, making music was one way in which young courting couples could spend time together and explore their emotions.
Paintings weren’t the only things on display: there was also a selection of early printed music books, which were often shared by lovers and carried around in secret. Several instruments of the kind seen in the pictures were also on show, some of which were quite different to modern instruments. For example, there was a lute, a clavischord and a virginial. Some of these instruments were seen as particularly suitable for women, while others were seen as rather dubious, often because of the positions a player needed to adopt while making music.
The highlight of the exhibition was the room in which three of Vermeer’s paintings – A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (from the National Gallery) and Guitar Player (on loan from Kenwood House) – were displayed alongside each other, exploring the role of music in different ways. My favourite painting, though, was The Music Lesson, in which a young woman and her music tutor share a supposedly innocent music-making experience – until you see the reflection in the mirror and notice their positions and the expressions in their faces.
The last section of the exhibition looked at Vermeer’s use of colour in his work, including his unprecedented use of expensive ultramarine and decision to use green earth when painting skin tones. This was an interesting way to round off the exhibition.